Founded in 1888, the oldest zoo west of the Mississippi is located just minutes from downtown Portland via MAX light rail in visitor-friendly Washington Park. The Oregon Zoo is home to 2,200 animals from more than 260 species — which means you can get up close to everything from an African pygmy hedgehog to a Visayan warty pig.
But the stars at this conservation zoo have to be the Asian elephants. The zoo’s herd of seven elephants includes the 10-foot-6-inch Packy, born here in 1962 (the first elephant born in the Western Hemisphere in 44 years) and two newer additions: Samudra, born in 2008, and baby Lily, born in November 2012 and still in her cute “toddler” phase. In 2015, the Elephant Lands exhibit quadrupled in size, creating a world-class home with new features that include shade structures, hilly berms and corridors, and a 12-foot-deep pond with remote-controlled water jets for playtime. The exhibit’s interactive digital displays allow visitors to identify individual elephants and even log behavior observations to share with zoo staff.
Another major update to the zoo in 2015 was the new Condors of the Columbia exhibit, which houses critically endangered California condors. Though once native to Oregon and known as “Thunderbirds” that populated the Columbia River during Lewis and Clark’s journey, these pterodactyl-sized scavengers haven’t been seen wild in the region in more than 100 years. The Oregon Zoo hopes to change that, and this new exhibit offers a naturalistic environment for birds from their condor recovery program that cannot be released in the wild; it includes a cascading stream, a deep pool, large boulders and tree snags for perching, plus two covered viewing areas (including an elevated watching post) to let visitors get a rare face-to-beak look at these gregarious giants.
The lay of the land
Stroll the zoo’s parklike grounds (64 acres in total) as you explore 23 exhibits grouped into five geographical areas:
- Great Northwest – Highlights include California condors, mountain goats, cougars, black bears
- Pacific Shores – Steller sea lions, polar bears, penguins, tigers and leopards, the insect zoo, birds, a tide pool
- Fragile Forests – Monkeys, apes
- Asia – Sun bears, island pigs, Elephant Lands
- Africa – Rhinos, hippos, zebras, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, birds
The zoo offers special events for every season, from the spring egg hunts of Rabbit Romp to Howloween’s trick-or-treating, but none shines as brightly as ZooLights, the annual holiday light display that runs from Thanksgiving weekend through New Year’s Eve. With more than a million LED lights adorning trees and animated sculptures, this popular event transforms the zoo into a winter wonderland.
From June through September, the Oregon Zoo Summer Concert Series brings major national acts like the B-52s, Indigo Girls and Portland’s own Pink Martini to its outdoor stage. Concert tickets include all-day admission to the zoo, so you can visit the animals before staking out a spot on the shady lawn and digging into locally sourced food, beer and wine sold on-site. Every show opens with a Wild Life Live performance featuring fly-overs from some of the zoo’s feathered residents.
The narrow-gauge Washington Park and Zoo Railway offers a nostalgic, kid-friendly way to explore the zoo and other Washington Park attractions, including the International Rose Test Garden and the Rose Garden Children’s Park. In addition to carrying passengers, the steam-powered trains also transport U.S. mail, making this the last railroad to continuously offer mail service. Just drop your letters or postcards onboard the locomotives or in mailboxes on the zoo grounds to get them hand-canceled with the Washington Park and Zoo Railway stamp.
Ways to save
- Admission is just $4 on the second Tuesday of each month.
- Ride the bus or light rail to the zoo and show your ticket to save $1.50 off admission.
Transportation to the zoo
The Oregon Zoo is served by the MAX light rail Blue and Red lines; the Washington Park MAX station is also close to the Portland Children’s Museum, World Forestry Center Discovery Museum, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the 4T and Wildwood trailheads.
TriMet bus #63 also goes from Providence Park in downtown to Washington Park, with stops near the International Rose Test Garden and Japanese Garden, and the Oregon Zoo, Portland Children’s Museum and World Forestry Center Discovery Museum.
From May to October, Washington Park offers a free shuttle for transportation within the park, stopping at all the park’s major attractions, as well as the Washington Park MAX station. The shuttle operates daily from June to Labor Day and weekends only from Labor Day to October 31st and in May. It runs every 15 minutes from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.